Grand Isle resident Patrick Shay set up a cemetery on the front lawn of his family’s raised cottage. The 101 handcrafted white crosses are a memorial to the summer pastimes that have been lost due to the Gulf oil spill: Beach sunrises. Shrimp Creole. Shrimp Etouffé. Boiled Crabs. Sand castles. Flying a kite. Floundering. Playing volleyball. Summer fun.
Normally, Shay would spend long summer days at the beach across from his house with his wife and son. Instead, dozens of cleanup workers in tyvek suits are scattered along the seven-mile stretch of beach off the Louisiana coast.
Each day they shovel oil-contaminated sand into plastic bags, only to return and repeat the process the next day and the day after that. When I visited last week, pools of oil still covered the beach as policemen on 4-wheelers roamed up and down the strip reminding residents not to enter the water or to risk arrest.
In summertime, Grand Isle triples in population as families arrive to enjoy the low-key island atmosphere and recreational fishermen pile in to access some of the best fishing grounds in the country. This year, the island has the feel of a ghost town, with tourists replaced by stray reporters and National Guard troops in humvees.
This maritime community is a standard example of how the domino effects of the oil spill threaten entire economies and cultures across the Gulf Coast. Not only are fishermen and charter boat captains out of work, but the marinas are empty; restaurants have few if any customers; property owners are unable to rent their camps; and prized traditions like the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo held every July and dating back to 1928 have been canceled.
The dramatic transformation is having a tremendous impact on residents’ emotional psyche. When I stopped into the Starfish Restaurant, for example, the waitress nearly broke into tears when she told me seafood gumbo wasn’t available due to the spill—neither were shrimp, crabs, or three-quarters of the menu. “We have chicken,” she offered which is a bit like trying to order tofu at a Texas steakhouse. It goes against the cultural grain.
Further down the road, Scott Camardelle was in the midst of boiling sacks of crawfish at his seafood shop. He owns a large bait shop and boiled seafood shop that President Obama visited on his trip to the island about two weeks ago. Camardelle figured he’d have about two weeks – or until the crawfish ran out – and then he’d have to close his doors.
“I’ve always made my own way,” he told me. “Paying off my house, sending my kids to school, fixing up the shop after the hurricanes.”
As he considered how he’d meet the $5,000 monthly loan payments for his bait shop, his counterstaff worker laughed and said, “Well, Scott, we do have that picnic table where the president sat. How much you figure that’s worth?”